Thursday, 15 July 2010

How the Propaganda Model drives climate scepticism

My last post on the subject of climate change scepticism ended with the observation that "as long as we waste our time arguing with sceptics clutching at straws, we are ignoring the real debate on climate change: what on earth do we do about it?"

What I should have added is that, perhaps, this is the point.

The one issue that I have yet failed to pick up on is where the climate "debate" fits into the Propaganda Model of the corporate media. Fortunately, it is a point that David Cromwell and David Edwards have taken up with aplomb over at Medialens;
English football’s Premier League is a farce. Year in, year out, the same ‘Big Four’ super-teams - Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool - fight for the same top four spots they have dominated since the 1996-97 season. Even for casual consumers of football news, the truth is hard to miss: at the end of every season, the teams that have most of the money - supplied by tycoons, TV rights and participation in Europe’s even more glamorous Champions League - simply buy off the best players from the lesser teams that have been causing them trouble. And if the super-team managers fail to deliver, then the best managers and trainers are brought in to put things right.

Quality is bolstered by quantity to further reduce the risk of failure - the super-teams are actually multi-teams. If an inspired lesser team manages to compete with one of the Big Four, the latter can always bring on fresh-legged, world class substitutes with whom the lesser teams, with no superstars on the bench, are unable to compete. The reality is that, over the course of a season, super-teams compete against lesser squads with the equivalent of two, three or more squads of their own. The cards - the credit cards, cash, lucre - are totally stacked in favour of the Big Four.

Week after week, Big Four fans look on breathlessly to see if a ton of money will once again allow the big business machine they call ‘us’ to overwhelm teams with a fraction of ‘our’ resources. No one seems to notice, or care, that every match is begun on a playing field mechanically tilted by giant under-pitch cogs towards the goal of the lesser team.

Type the words ‘Premier League’, ’Big Four’, and ‘dominance/domination’ into the LexisNexis search engine, and you will find occasional, small gestures in the direction of truth in the national press. In 2007, Simon Cass wrote in the Daily Mail that fans “are increasingly frustrated that the fight for the Premiership has become a money-driven, foregone conclusion with each passing season and the rich simply getting richer”. (Cass, ‘Only the top four matter,’ Daily Mail, July 26, 2007) Predictably enough, such observations are supported by analysis that is crassly superficial, and unlikely to embarrass the powers that be.

The Rise Of Climate Scepticism

In the New York Times on May 24, Elisabeth Rosenthal pondered another of the great unsporting contests of our time: the clash between people seeking and opposing action on climate change:

“Last month hundreds of environmental activists crammed into an auditorium here [Britain] to ponder an anguished question: If the scientific consensus on climate change has not changed, why have so many people turned away from the idea that human activity is warming the planet?” (Rosenthal, ‘Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons,’ New York Times, May 24, 2010;

The change in public opinion, Rosenthal noted, has been most striking in Britain, which has become “a home base for a thriving group of climate skeptics who have dominated news reports in recent months, apparently convincing many that the threat of warming is vastly exaggerated”.

A BBC survey in February found that only 26 per cent of Britons believed that “climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,” down from 41 per cent in November 2009. A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 per cent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 per cent four years earlier. A Gallup poll in March found that 48 per cent of Americans believed that the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated,” up from 41 per cent a year ago. (Ibid.)

Rosenthal made no mention of analysis challenging these figures. Professor Jon Krosnick of Stanford University has been surveying American views on climate change since 1995. Krosnick claims that Americans remain overwhelmingly convinced that man-made climate change is real and should be tackled:

“The media is sensationalizing these polls to make it sound like the public is backing off its belief in climate change, but it’s not so.” (

According to Krosnick, Americans’ views have remained quite stable over the past ten years. In November 2009, 75 per cent of Americans believed that global temperatures were going up - a “huge number”, Krosnick notes. The number of Americans who think all scientists agree about climate change +has+ declined to 31 per cent. But as Krosnick comments: “most Americans have thought that for the entire fifteen years I’ve been polling on this issue”.

In the New York Times, Rosenthal cited newly sceptical members of the public:

“Before, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this climate change problem is just dreadful,’ said Jillian Leddra, 50, a musician who was shopping in London on a recent lunch hour. ‘But now I have my doubts, and I’m wondering if it’s been overhyped.’”

Up to this point, Rosenthal’s analysis was reasonable enough. But this was her explanation of the change in public opinion:

“Here in Britain, the change has been driven by the news media’s intensive coverage of a series of climate science controversies unearthed and highlighted by skeptics since November. These include the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from prominent British climate scientists at the University of East Anglia that skeptics cited as evidence that researchers were overstating the evidence for global warming and the discovery of errors in a United Nations climate report.”

Rosenthal’s account is so deceptive because it portrays climate scepticism, and media +enthusiasm+ for climate scepticism, as naturally occurring phenomena - they simply +are+. But this is a lie. Like Premier League football, the playing field hosting the public debate on climate is massively tilted by hidden forces in favour of the corporate interests that have long fought environmental responsibility tooth and nail. The pitch on which the game is played - the corporate media - is itself corporate! 
I would recommend that you read the whole thing. It demonstrates how the corporate media's weight on this issue doesn't just come into play in articles and editorials, but also in advertising, and even in the education system.

This is the point that's missed when climate skeptics enthusiastically point out that they're "not funded by Big Oil." The influence of "Big Oil" is only one element of the propaganda filters around this issue. As Cromwell and Edwards note, "it is not just that the pitch is tilted - the very tectonic plates underpinning modern culture are slanted against honest discussion of, and responses to, climate change."

This is what we're up against, not only in terms of public opinion, but when it comes to actually doing something about the problem. We need a way to change that.